Grocery stores' defamation claim dismissed, sanctions awarded. Attorney's fees to be evaluated.
The owners of the Value Center Market sued Kraft Foods Global and several individuals, arguing that the Defendants had defamed them by claiming that Value Center was selling stolen products. The latter claims resulted in a police raid and media reports of the allegations. The plaintiffs argued that Kraft's actions were unreasonable, defamatory and intended to discourage retailers from purchasing goods through wholesalers.
The defendants produced documentary evidence that stolen product codes matched those of products in plaintiffs' stores and sought summary disposition of the plaintiffs' claims. When the plaintiffs did not refute this documentary evidence, the court granted summary disposition and awarded the defendants' attorneys fees of $196,000.00. The grocery chain owners appealed both the summary disposition and the fee sanctions.
The appellate panel upheld the dismissal of the claim, finding no genuine issue of material fact. In response to the plaintiffs' objections to the attorney fee sanction award, the court held that despite the parties' financial disparity and the fact that Kraft "could have handled the matter better," the basic sanction award was not inapproprate. Nevertheless, it concluded that the trial judge had not adequately evaluated the lawyers' billings to determine the reasonableness of the time charged. It approved hourly rates ranging from $285 to $475 per hour, but sent the total cost and fee award back to the lower court for analysis.